Wednesday, January 04, 2012

interconnection and environmentalism (repost)

[NB: this is a repost, somewhat edited, of a post that originally appeared at Kevin's Walk here, in 2008.]

An interesting discussion with a Buddhist commenter led to a two-pronged exchange, dealing with (1) nondualism and (2) the ethical implications of interconnectedness. I'm going to drop the nondualism prong for now because it's a fruitless pursuit, and will instead concentrate on the question of interconnectedness and what that state of affairs may or may not imply, ethically speaking.

One theme of the Buddhist's response to my post was that, because all phenomena are interconnected, our actions affect the environment and vice versa. S/he also seems to think that my attitude toward human development of the land-- and the environmental damage such development causes-- is to shrug my shoulders and say "Oh, well." No, no, no.

Let's take it as given that it's a bad idea to live in your own toilet (pity the poor goldfish). To that extent, I agree we need to keep the environment clean, but what I've been trying to hammer at is that "clean" is usually conceived anthropocentrically. Ask rats and cockroaches whether urban overdevelopment and decay are bad ideas. My point all along has been that it's perfectly fine to engage in the environmentalist project, but we need to be open about why we're doing what we're doing: it's to preserve ourselves. In the end, it isn't, as my Buddhist interlocutor and others would have it, about respecting the earth; it can't be. We don't know enough about the earth to know how to respect it. Let's look at a current topic: global warming.

As has been repeatedly noted in the endless debate over climate change, some areas of the earth are heating up, but other areas are cooling down. The relentless, exclusive focus on the heating-up indicates a blindness brought about by ideology. A recognition of the actual state of affairs would be better, and the actual state of affairs is not-good, not-bad: climate change happens with human intervention or not; it's simply a given. We need to worry about climate change only to the extent that it affects humanity-- we can't be so arrogant as to think it's our job to preserve all extant species. What a ridiculous project that would be! Species die out all the time, and in terms of geologic history, they often disappear completely after a major natural-- not anthropogenic-- cataclysm. Is the environment thrown out of whack thereby?

The planet is not a balanced, harmonious, "self-correcting" system (pace George Carlin, with whom I nonetheless largely agree!); there isn't much evidence to support such a notion, especially when it comes to large timescales. The planet simply is what it is, and we're still discovering what that means. People who see the world in terms of the interplay of yin and yang would do well to note that the yin-yang symbol, depicted as a swirl, indicates a constant dynamism, i.e., a universe that's always a little off-kilter. I'm not sure this should be read as "balance" or "equilibrium," which are the terms in which many environmentalists view humanity's current problems. The earth isn't off-balance: it was never balanced to begin with. That one or another species might become dominant on the surface of the earth is simply how things are; even at this point, it'd be hard to say which form of life is truly the dominant form. I would, in fact, contend that humanity's probably not it.

The fact of interconnectedness-- that we affect and are affected by our environment-- isn't enough of a foundation on which to build a strongly "green" argument. Acknowledging our "interbeing" (to use Thich Nhat Hahn's trendy term) isn't the same as knowing what the fruits of our actions will be, or whether those fruits will be "bad" or "good." Environmentalists are on solid ground when they posit that pollution is generally harmful to humans and to certain other living elements of the food chain, but when they begin recommending specific pollution-fighting strategies, they truly have no idea what the consequences of those measures will be. What I resent is that they act as though they do know.

I agree with my Buddhist interlocutor that it's not a stark either-or situation. We don't have to choose between preserving nature "in its pristine purity" (thereby forcing humanity to suffer) or doing nothing (thereby forcing nature to suffer). I think the best we can do is to take measures that we know will be beneficial to us, then worry about the consequences to the rest of the environment as the effects of our actions become obvious to us. Right now, many of those effects simply aren't obvious enough for people to adopt alarmist stances. We don't know the extent to which current warming trends on some parts of the planet are anthropogenic in origin. There's good evidence that those trends may in fact be part of a natural cycle, in which case we find ourselves in the position of having to fight the natural cycle to preserve certain swaths of human civilization.

Another reason to relax is that people have already proven themselves capable of living in extreme conditions. There are folks who live in regions of months-long daylight and darkness; who live in constant cold and wind; who live in arid desert; who live in cacophonous jungle. People adapt. This is part of who we are. If certain regions become too hot for humanity to live in, people will move, or they'll learn to deal with that heat. This sort of thing has been part of human history from the beginning: the volcano erupts; the locals flee if they can and start up new lives elsewhere. That, or they come back and stubbornly rebuild.

Extreme conditions include human-created extremes. Seoul, where I lived for eight years, is the kind of place that could drive some people nuts: the press of the population, the traffic, the vehicle exhaust, the tainted rain, the constant noise, the sewage stench, the light pollution that prevents one from seeing the panoply of stars at night. But twelve million people seem to be doing just fine there, and the same could be said as we move across the globe to places like Mexico City or Shanghai or Tokyo or Paris. As I said, people adapt.

So I remain unconvinced that the mere fact of interbeing is enough to spur us to heroic efforts on behalf of an environment that, truth be told, doesn't really need our help (hell, it might breathe a sigh of relief when we finally disappear and stop "helping" it!). If we broom and groom the place, it's for our own benefit, not because we're preserving some sort of sacred equilibrium. It's not obvious that we need every single element of the global ecosystem to survive; people in different, "extreme" parts of the world seem to get along fine without some of those elements (no verdure for the researchers camped out in Antarctica, for example). What is obvious is that we not only multiply and build, but we also adapt. As a result, the actual environmental picture is more complex than the one being painted by alarmists and romantics.

Part of Michael Crichton's point, in the speech to which I linked in my previous post on environmentalism, is that humanity has never existed in total harmony with nature. Nature has done violence to humanity, and vice versa; this conflict has always been a major theme of humanity's existence. Which brings us to a crucial metaphysical point: interconnection is not always harmonious, and people who try to portray interconnection that way are doing a dangerous disservice to the rest of us. This is why I part company with folks like Benjamin Hoff, whose bestselling The Tao of Pooh presents the reader with only the happy face of the Tao-- harmony, tranquility, balance. But anyone who's taken time to study even a little philosophical Taoism can tell you that the Tao is also disharmony, disturbance, and imbalance: water can be a calm, limpid, life-giving pool, or it can crash down like a monster, eradicating entire cities. Nature is red in tooth and claw and tidal wave, and that fact is just as important as nature's calmer, more beatific face.


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